The debasement of ordinary words that have no legal protection has been common enough. Much has been written about the abuse of ‘real’ ‘homemade’, ‘natural’, ‘local’ and ‘artisan’ being but a few examples. Only a few days ago Marion Nestle wrote in The Atlantic posing the question ‘Is 'Natural' the Most Meaningless Word on Your Food Labels?’ Although it was perhaps Dominos Pizza that took the abuse of ‘artisan’ to its most cynically exploited heights in launching ‘Dominos Artisan Pizza’ as “artisan pizza without the artisan price” while declaring “We’re not Artisans” on the box.
So many words of which we are fond are being debased. Who really understands that some words are legally defined while others are not? Whilst ‘organic’ is an exception, the rest are not so defined. This leaves an open playing field for industry marketers to exploit our understanding or, on this occasion, more a case of a misunderstanding of the use of ordinary words.
The deceptions practiced by the food industry and retailers become ever more brazen. When I typed ‘Lochmuir’ my spell checker queried whether I had typed a real word. But annoying as spell checkers can be, it did have a point on this occasion. Not long ago consumer champion Which? published the results of some research it had undertaken on food labelling and it turns out that Marks & Spencer sell 11,000 tonnes of Lochmuir salmon each year. It also turns out my spellchecker was right, Lochmuir does not exist.
In fairness Nicola Twilley in Edible Geography highlighted this some months ago. Which? made a half-hearted call for honest labelling but neither seemed really to challenge or question what was happening. There are plenty of other examples. M&S Oakham Chicken, which you could be forgiven for thinking came from Oakham, historic market town in the county of Rutland, but it doesn’t, it comes from various farms in East Anglia, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Tesco’s Willow Farm, like Lochmuir, is a complete invention, it simply doesn’t exist. Does inventing an idyllic place to make us feel better about our purchases sit comfortable with corporate integrity and responsibility?
The next logical step would be to start renaming towns to take advantage of a familiar product. I’ve not spotted this yet in the UK, but apparently it has happened in China where the town of ‘Parma’ suddenly appeared and it just happens to produce ham? Coincidence? I think not. No doubt foie gras from the factory on the banks of Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province, in China with a planned 2 million geese and into which US investors have recently ploughed $100m will be called ‘Foie Gras du Compagne’ or some such.
A recent survey reported on the priorities that determined consumer food choices, after price and quality, animal welfare came close behind. This was not so much the case 10 years ago but even then researchers at the University of Reading found that where it was a concern:
“Consumers use animal welfare as an indicator of other, usually more important, product attributes such as food safety, quality and healthiness. Consequently, consumers equate good animal welfare standards with good food standards.”
The food industry clearly understood this all too well at the time and has used it to great advantage in a calculated attempt to present a rosy picture to exploit the consumer’s desire for reassurance on welfare concerns. That manufacturers and retailers invariably feel able to be so open with their deception can only be because they believe somehow we are complicit in it. It seems they help assuage an otherwise guilty conscience to their commercial advantage in a let’s get-away-with-it-for-as-long-as-we-can strategy.
So does any of this matter? Of course it does! It’s utterly dishonest and designed to serve one purpose only, to lead us to believe something is that which it definitively is not in pursuit of the bottom line. Why is there no public outrage? Are we all happy to be treated like a bunch of idiots? Or is ‘provenance’ simply the next word to join the ranks of the abused in our food vocabulary?
A full copy of the Centre for Food Economics Research at the University of Reading can be found here.